India’s wicked problem: how to loosen its grip on coal while not abandoning the millions who depend on it


Anupam Nath/AP

Vigya Sharma, The University of QueenslandIndia is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and its transition to a low-carbon economy is crucial to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. But unfortunately, the nation is still clinging firmly to coal.

Our new research considered this problem, drawing on a case study in the Angul district, India’s largest coal reserve in the eastern state of Odisha.

We found three main factors slowing the energy transition: strong political and community support for coal, a lack of alternative economic activities, and deep ties between coal and other industries such as rail.

India must step away from coal, while maintaining economic growth and not leaving millions of people in coal-mining regions worse off. Our research probes this wicked problem in detail and suggests ways forward.

people carry baskets filled with coal
India’s energy transition must ensure those living in poverty are not left behind.
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Why India matters

India’s population will soon reach 1.4 billion and this decade it is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation. This, combined with a young population, growing economy and rapid urbanisation, means energy consumption in India has doubled since 2000.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates India will have the largest increase in energy demand of any country between now and 2040.

An affordable, reliable supply of energy is central to raising the nation’s living standards. A recent World Bank analysis found up to 150 million people in India are poor.

Alongside its massive reliance on coal, India has one of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy plans, including an aim to quadruple renewable electricity capacity by 2030.

The IEA says coal accounts for about 70% of India’s electricity generation. And as the nation rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic this year, the rise in coal-fired electricity production is expected to be three times that from cleaner sources.

Coal-powered generation is anticipated to grow annually by 4.6% to 2024, and coal is expected to remain a major emitter of greenhouse gases to 2040.

While India’s energy trajectory remains aligned with its commitments under the Paris Agreement, the speed and readiness of its transition remains a complex, divisive issue. The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Energy Transition Index ranks India 87th out of 115 countries analysed.




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students hold lights
India’s young, growing population is fuelling the nation’s energy demand.
EPA

Bottlenecks in the transition

Our research involved visits to the Angul district in Odisha in 2018 and 2019, where we conducted focus groups and interviews. Angul is home to 11 coal mines.

We found three crucial bottlenecks to the energy transition, which arguably exist in India’s other coal belts and could derail the nation’s decarbonisation efforts.

First, the Odisha government has historically been very pro-business. Politicians across the spectrum support coal mining and seek to position it as the region’s primary economic lifeline.

The official pro-coal position receives little pushback from Angul residents, who are largely unaware of Odisha’s contribution to national greenhouse gas emissions. Any local opposition to coal usually stems from concern about environmental degradation such as air, water and land pollution.

Most of Angul’s residents felt a deep connection to coal because their livelihood depends on it. One participant told us:

even if all the water is polluted and five inches of dust settles on our well, we would prefer mining to continue as my family’s survival depends on (the contract with the mining company).

Most participants considered their farming land as an asset to be sold to the mining companies for a significant sum. The money would, in turn, allow them to start a business, buy a car or arrange a marriage in the family.

people sit in dark room
Coal is important to the livelihoods of millions of Indian people.
AP

Second, the heavy reliance on coal means efforts to diversify the region’s economy have been grossly neglected.

In Angul, mining zones and coal-dedicated railway lines passing through paddy fields mean agricultural productivity has declined over time. Rural development agendas have been short-lived, often set within six months of an election deadline then changed or abandoned.

Skill-development programs in non-coal vocations have also been limited. This lack of viable alternatives implicitly generates local support for coal.

And third, a suite of industries in Odisha – such as steel, cement, fertiliser and bauxite – depend on cheap coal for power. This is reflected across India, where coal has deep ties with other industries in ways not seen elsewhere.

For example, in 2016 Indian Railways earned 44% of its freight revenue from transporting coal. Indian Railways is India’s largest employer and coal revenue helps keep passenger fares low. So in this way, a potential coal phaseout in India would have far-reaching effects.

people look out train window
Coal revenue helps subsidise train fares in India.
EPA

The way forward

We offer these pathways to ensure a steady, just energy transition in India:

  • India must help its coal regions diversify their economic activities
  • bipartisan support for a coal-free India is needed. Transition champions such as Germany can show India’s leaders the way
  • a national taskforce for energy transition should be established. It should include representatives from across industry and academia, as well as climate policymakers and grassroots organisations
  • India’s coal regions are endowed with metals needed in the energy transition, including iron ore, bauxite and manganese. With improved regulatory standards, these offer economic alternatives to coal
  • concerns about the coal phase-out from communities in coal regions should be addressed fairly and in a timely way.

The world’s emerging economies are responsible for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. The energy transition in India, if done well, could show the way for other developing nations.

But as new industrial sectors emerge and clean energy jobs grow, India must ensure those in coal-dependent regions are not left behind.




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The Conversation


Vigya Sharma, Senior Research Fellow, Sustainable Minerals Institute, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Four seismic climate wins show Big Oil, Gas and Coal are running out of places to hide


Peter Dejong/AP

Jacqueline Peel, The University of Melbourne; Ben Neville, The University of Melbourne, and Rebekkah Markey-Towler, The University of MelbourneThree global fossil fuel giants have just suffered embarrassing rebukes over their inadequate action on climate change. Collectively, the developments show how courts, and frustrated investors, are increasingly willing to force companies to reduce their carbon dioxide pollution quickly.

A Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to slash its greenhouse emissions, and 61% of Chevron shareholders backed a resolution to force that company to do the same. And in an upset at Exxon Mobil, an activist hedge fund won two seats on the company’s board.

The string of wins was followed in Australia on Thursday by a court ruling that the federal environment minister, when deciding whether or not to approve a new coal mine, owes a duty of care to young people to avoid causing them personal injury from climate change.

The court rulings are particularly significant. Courts have often been reluctant to interfere in what is viewed as an issue best left to policymakers. These recent judgements, and others, suggest courts are more prepared to scrutinise emissions reduction by businesses and – in the case of the Dutch court – order them to do more.

Shell, Chevron and Exxon logos
The wins for climate action put big polluters on notice.
AP

Court warns of ‘irreversible consequences’

In a world-first ruling, a Hague court ordered oil and gas giant Shell to reduce CO₂ emissions by 45% by 2030, relative to 2019 levels. The court noted Shell had no emissions-reduction targets to 2030, and its policies to 2050 were “rather intangible, undefined and non-binding”.

The case was brought by climate activist and human rights groups. The court found climate change due to CO₂ emissions “has serious and irreversible consequences” and threatened the human “right to life”. It also found Shell was responsible for so-called “Scope 3” emissions generated by its customers and suppliers.

The Chevron upset involved an investor revolt. Some 61% of shareholders supported a resolution calling for Chevron to substantially reduce Scope 3 emissions generated by the use of its oil and gas.

And last week, shareholders of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s biggest corporate greenhouse gas emitters, forced a dramatic management shakeup. An activist hedge fund, Engine No. 1, won two, and potentially three, places on the company’s 12-person board.

Engine No. 1 explicitly links Exxon’s patchy economic performance to a failure to invest in low-carbon technologies.




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oil rig
The court said Shell’s emissions reduction efforts were ‘rather intangible’.
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Climate-savvy shareholders unite

As human activity causes Earth’s atmosphere to warm, large fossil fuel companies are under increasing pressure to act.

A mere 20 companies have contributed 493 billion tonnes of CO₂ and methane to the atmosphere, primarily from the burning of their oil, coal and gas. This equates to 35% of all global greenhouse gas emissions since 1965.

Shareholders – many concerned by the financial risks of climate change – are leading the corporate accountability push. The Climate Action 100+ initiative is a leading example.

It involves more than 400 investors with more than A$35 trillion in assets under management, who work with companies to reduce emissions, and improve governance and climate-related financial disclosures. Similar movements are emerging worldwide.

Shareholders in Australia are also stepping up engagement with companies over climate change.

Last year, shareholder resolutions on climate change were put to Santos and Woodside. While neither resolution achieved the 75% support needed to pass, both received unprecedented levels of support – 43.39% and 50.16% of the vote, respectively.

And in May 2021, Rio Tinto became the first Australian board to publicly back shareholder resolutions on climate change, which subsequently passed with 99% support.




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Rio Tinto executives
The Rio Tinto board backed a shareholder resolution on climate change.
Brendan Esposito/AAP

The litigation trend

To date, the question of whether corporate polluters can be legally forced to reduce greenhouse emissions has remained unanswered. While fossil fuel companies have faced a string of climate lawsuits in the United States and Europe, courts have often dismissed the claims on procedural grounds.

Cases brought against governments have been more successful. In 2019, for example, the Dutch Supreme Court affirmed the government has a legal duty to prevent dangerous climate change.

The decision against Shell is significant, and sends a clear signal that corporations can be held legally responsible for greenhouse pollution.

Shell has previously argued it can only reduce its absolute emissions by shrinking its business. The recent case highlights how such companies may have to quickly find new forms of revenue, or face legal liability.

It’s unlikely we’ll see identical litigation in Australia, because our laws are different to those in the Netherlands. But the Shell case is emblematic of a broader trend of climate litigation being brought to challenge corporate polluters.

This includes the case decided on Thursday involving young people opposed to a company’s coal mine expansion, and Australian cases arguing for greater disclosure of climate risk by corporations, banks and super funds.




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teenagers involved in case
The case brought against the Australian government by a group of teenagers is part of a growing trend towards climate litigation.
Supplied

Change is nigh

Oil and gas companies often argue Scope 3 emissions are not their responsibility, because they don’t control how customers use their products. The Shell finding and shareholder action against Chevron suggest this claim may hold little sway with courts or shareholders in future.

The Shell case may also set off a global avalanche of copycat litigation. In Australia, legal experts have noted the turning tide, and warned is it’s only a matter of time before directors who fail to act on climate change face litigation.

Clearly, a seismic shift is looming, in which corporations will be forced to take greater responsibility for climate harms. These recent developments should act as a wake-up call for oil, gas and coal companies, in Australia and around the world.The Conversation

Jacqueline Peel, Professor of Environmental and Climate Law, The University of Melbourne; Ben Neville, Senior Lecturer and Program Director of the Master of Commerce, The University of Melbourne, and Rebekkah Markey-Towler, Research fellow, Melbourne Climate Futures, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Paying Australia’s coal-fired power stations to stay open longer is bad for consumers and the planet


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Daniel J Cass, University of Sydney; Joel Gilmore, Griffith University, and Tim Nelson, Griffith UniversityAustralian governments are busy designing the nation’s transition to a clean energy future. Unfortunately, in a misguided effort to ensure electricity supplies remain affordable and reliable, governments are considering a move that would effectively pay Australia’s old, polluting coal-fired power stations to stay open longer.

The measure is one of several options proposed by the Energy Security Board (ESB), the chief energy advisor to Australian governments on electricity market reform. The board on Friday released a vision to redesign the National Electricity Market as it transitions to clean energy.

The key challenges of the transition are ensuring it is smooth (without blackouts) and affordable, as coal and gas generators close and are replaced by renewable energy.

The redesign has been two years in the making. The ESB has done a very good job of identifying key issues, and most of its recommendations are sound. But its option to change the way electricity generators and retailers strike contracts for electricity, if adopted, would be highly counterproductive – bad both for consumers and for climate action.

Electricity lines at sunset
One proposed reform to Australia’s electricity market would be bad for consumers and climate action.
Shutterstock

The energy market dilemma

The National Electricity Market (NEM) covers every Australian jurisdiction except Western Australia and the Northern Territory. It comprises electricity generators, transmission and distribution networks, electricity retailers, customers and a financial market where electricity is traded.

Electricity generators in the NEM comprise older, polluting technology such as gas- and coal-fired power, and newer, clean forms of generation such as wind and solar. Renewable energy, which makes up about 23% of our electricity mix, is now cheaper than energy from coal and gas.

Wind and solar energy is “variable” – only produced when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Technology such as battery storage is needed to smooth out renewable energy supplies and make it “dispatchable”, meaning it can be delivered on demand.

Some say coal generators, which supply dispatchable electricity, are the best way to ensure reliable and affordable electricity. But Australia’s coal-fired power stations, some of which are more than 40 years old, are becoming more prone to breakdowns – and so less reliable and more expensive – as they age. This has led to some closing suddenly.

Without a clear national approach to emissions targets, there’s a risk these sudden closures will occur again.




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Wind farm near coast
Wind and solar energy is variable.
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So what’s proposed?

To address reliability concerns, the ESB has proposed an option known as the “physical retailer reliability obligation”.

In a nutshell, the change would require electricity retailers to negotiate contracts for a certain amount of “dispatchable” electricity from specific generators for times of the year when reliability is a concern, such as the peak weeks of summer when lots of people use air conditioning.

Currently, the Australian Energy Market Operator has reserve electricity measures it can deploy when market supply falls short.

But under the new obligation, all retailers would also have to enter contracts for dispatchable supply. This would likely require buying electricity from the coal generators that dominate the market. This provides a revenue source enabling these coal plants to remain open even when cheaper renewable energy makes them unprofitable.

The ESB says without the change, the closure of coal generators will be unpredictable or “disorderly”, creating price shocks and reliability risks.

hand turns off light switch in bedroom
The ESWB says the recommendation would address concerns over electricity reliability.
Shutterstock

A big risk

Even the ESB concedes the recommendation comes with considerable risks. In particular, the board says it may:

  • impose increased barriers to retail competition and product innovation
  • lead to possible overcompensation of existing coal and gas generators.

In short, the policy could potentially lock in increasingly unreliable, ageing coal assets, stall new investment in new renewable energy storage such as batteries and pumped hydro and increase market concentration.

It could also push up electricity prices. Electricity retailers are likely to pass on the cost of these new electricity contracts to consumers, no matter how much energy that household or business actually used.

The existing market already encourages generators to provide reliable supply – and applies strong penalties if they don’t. And in fact, the NEM experiences reliability issues for an average of just one minute per year. It would appear little could be added to the existing market design to make generators more reliable than they are.

Finally, the market is dominated by three large “gentailers” – AGL, Energy Australia and Origin – which own both generators and the retail companies that sell electricity. The proposed change would disadvantage smaller electricity retailers, which in many cases would be forced to buy electricity from generators owned by their competitors.

Australia’s gentailers are heavily invested in coal power stations. The proposed change would further concentrate their market power while propping up coal.




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warning sign on fence
The proposed change brings a raft of risks to the electricity market.
Kelly Barnes/AAP

What governments should do

If coal-fired power stations are protected from competition, it will deter investment in cleaner alternatives. The recommendation, if adopted, would delay decarbonisation and put Australia further at odds with our international peers on climate policy.

The federal and state governments must work together to develop a plan for electricity that facilitates clean energy investment while controlling costs for consumers.

The plan should be coordinated across the states. Without this, we risk creating a sharper shock later, when climate diplomacy requires the planned retirement of coal plants. Other nations have acknowledged the likely demise of coal, and it’s time Australia caught up.




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The Conversation


Daniel J Cass, Research Affiliate, Sydney Business School, University of Sydney; Joel Gilmore, Associate Professor, Griffith University, and Tim Nelson, Associate Professor of Economics, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is Malcolm Turnbull the only Liberal who understands economics and climate science – or the only one who’ll talk about it?


Darren England/AAP

Richard Denniss, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National UniversityYesterday, former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was unceremoniously dumped as chair of the New South Wales government’s climate advisory board, just a week after being offered the role. His crime? He questioned the wisdom of building new coal mines when the existing ones are already floundering.

No-one would suggest building new hotels in Cairns to help that city’s struggling tourism industry. But among modern Liberals it’s patently heresy to ask how rushing to green light 11 proposed coal mines in the Hunter Valley helps the struggling coal industry.

Coal mines in the Hunter are already operating well below capacity and have been laying off workers in the face of declining world demand for coal, plummeting renewable energy prices and trade sanctions imposed by China. The problem isn’t a shortage of supply, but an abundance.

The simple truth is building new coal mines will simply make matters worse, especially for workers in existing coal mines that have already been mothballed or had their output scaled back.

coal mine in the Hunter Valley
Turnbull has called for a moratorium on new coal mines in the Hunter Valley, such as the one pictured above.
Dean Lewins/AAP

It gets worse. Once an enormous, dusty, noisy open cut coal mine is approved, the agriculture, wine, tourism and horse breeding industries – all major employers in the Hunter Valley – are reluctant to invest nearby. While building new coal mines hurts workers in existing coal mines, the mere act of approving new coal mines harms investment in job creation in the industries that offer the Hunter a smooth transition from coal.

The NSW planning department doesn’t have a plan for how many new coal mines are needed to meet world demand. Nor does it have a plan for how much expansion of rail and port infrastructure is required to meet the output of all the new mines being proposed.




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That’s why my colleagues and I recently called for a moratorium on new coal mines in the Hunter until such plans were made explicit. Just as you wouldn’t approve 1,000 new homes in a town where the sewerage system was already at capacity, it makes no sense to approve 11 new coal mines in a region that couldn’t export that much coal if it tried.

But if there’s one thing that defines the debate about coal in Australia, its that it makes no sense.

Just as it made no sense for then-treasurer Scott Morrison to wave a lump of coal around in parliament in 2017, it makes no sense for right-wing commentators to pretend approving new mines will help create jobs in coal mining. And it makes no sense for the National Party to ignore the pleas of farmers to protect their land from the damage coal mines do.

Scott Morrison with a lump of coal to Question Time in 2017.
Scott Morrison took a lump of coal to Question Time in 2017.
Lukas Coch/AAP

On the surface, Turnbull’s support for a pause on approving new mines while a plan is developed is old-fashioned centrism. It protects existing coal workers from new, highly automated mines, it protects farmers and it should make those concerned with climate change at least a bit happy. Win. Win. Win.

But there’s no room for a sensible centre in the Australian coal debate. And when someone even suggests the industry might not be set to grow, its army of loyal parliamentary and media supporters swing into action.

Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon said Turnbull “wants to make the Upper Hunter a coal-mine-free zone”. The Nationals’ Matt Canavan suggested stopping coal exports was “an inhumane policy to keep people in poverty”. The head of the NSW Minerals Council suggested 12,000 jobs were at risk.

But of course, the opposite is true. Turnbull’s proposal to protect existing coal workers from competition from new mines would save jobs, not threaten them. He didn’t suggest coal mines be shut down tomorrow, or even early. And, given existing coal mines are running so far below capacity, his call has no potential to impact coal exports.




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Coal workers
Opening new coal mines won’t help save the jobs of existing coal workers.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Predictably, the Murdoch press ran a relentlessly misleading campaign in support of the coal industry and in opposition to their least favourite Liberal PM. But surprisingly, the NSW government rolled over in record time.

While the government might think appeasing the coal industry will play well among some older regional voters, they must know such kowtowing is a gift to independents such as Zali Steggall, and a fundamental threat to inner-city Liberals such as Dave Sharma, Jason Falinski and Trent Zimmerman.

The decision to dump Turnbull might have bought NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian some respite from attacks from the Daily Telegraph. But such denial of economics and climate science will provide no respite for existing coal workers in shuttered coal mines or the agriculture and tourism industry that is looking to expand.

No doubt the National Party are pleased with their latest scalp. But it must be remembered this is the party that last year wanted to wage a war against koalas on behalf of property developers. Such political instincts might help the Nationals fend off the threat from One Nation in regional areas but it does nothing to retain votes in leafy Liberal strongholds that deliver most Liberal seats.




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The Conversation


Richard Denniss, Adjunct Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Electricity has become a jigsaw. Coal is unable to provide the missing pieces



Bohbeh/Shutterstock

Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

There’s something the energy minister said when they announced the early closure of Victoria’s second-biggest coal-fired power station last week that was less than complete.

Yallourn, in the Latrobe Valley, provides up to 20% of Victoria’s power. It has been operating for 47 years. Since late 2017 at least one of its four units has broken down 50 times. Its workforce doubles for three to four months most years to deal with the breakdowns. It pumps out 3% of Australia’s carbon emissions.

On Wednesday Energy Australia gave seven years notice of its intention to close it in mid-2028, four years earlier than previously announced, a possibility for which regulators had been preparing.

In what might have been a rhetorical flourish, Energy Minister Angus Taylor warned of “price spikes every night when the sun goes down”.

Then he drew attention to what had happened when two other coal-fired power stations closed down — Victoria’s Hazelwood and South Australia’s Northern (South Australia’s last-remaining coal-fired generator).

He said “wholesale prices skyrocketed by 85%”.

And there he finished, without going on to detail what really mattered. South Australia and Victoria now have the lowest wholesale power prices in the National Electricity Market — that’s right, the lowest.

Coal-fired plants close, then prices fall

Before Northern closed, South Australia had Australia’s highest price.

Five years after the closure of Northern in 2016, and four years after the closure of Hazelwood in 2017, South Australia and Victorian have wholesale prices one-third lower than those in NSW and two-fifths lower than those in Queensland.

Something happened after the closure (largely as a result of the closure) that forced prices down.

South Australia became a renewables powerhouse.

South Australian wind projects congregate around power lines.
AEMO

The Australian National University’s Hugh Saddler points out that renewable-sourced power — wind and grid solar — now accounts for 62% of power supplied to the South Australian grid, and at times for all of it.

Much of it is produced near Port Augusta, where the Northern and Playford coal-fired power stations used to be, because that’s where the transmission lines begin.

Being even cheaper than the power produced by the old brown-coal-fired power stations, there is at times so much it that it sends prices negative, meaning generators get paid to turn off in order to avoid putting more power into the system than users can take out.

It’s one of the reasons coal-fired plants are closing: they are hard to turn off. They are just as hard to turn on, and pretty hard to turn up.

Coal can’t respond quickly

There are times (when the wind doesn’t blow and there’s not much sun, such as last Friday in South Australia) when prices can get extraordinarily high.

But coal-fired plants, especially brown-coal-fired plants such as Victoria’s Hazelwood and Yallourn and Victoria’s two remaining big plants, Loy Yang A and B, are unable to quickly ramp up to take advantage of them.

Although “dispatchable” in the technical meaning of the term used by the minister, coal-fired stations can’t fill gaps quickly.




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Batteries can respond instantly to a loss of power from other sources (although not for very long), hydro can respond in 30 to 70 seconds, gas peaking plants can respond within minutes.

But coal can barely move. As with nuclear power, coal-fired power needs to be either on (in which case it can only slowly ramp up) or off, in which case turning it on from a standing start would be way too slow.

What was a feature is now a bug

That’s why coal-fired generators operate 24-7, to provide so-called base-load, because they can’t really do anything else.

Snowy Hydro generators can be turned on and off at will.
Alex Ellinghausen/AAP

Brown coal generators are the least dispatchable. Brown coal is about 60% water. To make it ignite and keep boiling off the water takes sustained ultra-high temperatures. Units at Yallourn have to keep burning coal at high output (however low or negative the prices) or turn off.

In the days when the other sources of power could be turned on and off at will, this wasn’t so much of a problem.

Hydro or gas could be turned on in the morning when we turned on our lights and heaters and factories got down to business, and coal-fired power could be slowly ramped up.

At night, when there was less demand for coal-fired power, some could be created by offering cheap off-peak water heating.

But those days are gone. Nationwide, wind and solar including rooftop solar supplies 20% of our needs. It turns on and off at will.

Wind often blows strongly at night. What was a feature of coal — its ability to provide steady power rather than fill gaps – has become a bug.

Gas and batteries can fill gaps coal can’t

It’s as if our power system has become a jigsaw with the immovable pieces provided by the wind and the sun. It’s our job to fill in the gaps.

To some extent, as the prime minister says, gas will be a transition fuel, able to fill gaps in a way that coal cannot. But gas has become expensive, and batteries are being installed everywhere.

Energy Australia plans to replace its Yallourn power station with Australia’s first four-hour utility-scale battery with a capacity of 350 megawatts, more than any battery operating in the world today. South Australia is planning an even bigger one, up to 900 megawatts.




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Australia’s Future Fund and AGL Energy are investing $2.7 billion in wind farms in NSW and Queensland which will fill gaps in a different way — their output peaks at different times to wind farms in South Australia and Victoria.

Filling the gaps won’t be easy, and had we not gone down this road there might still have been a role for coal, but the further we go down it the less coal can help.

As cheap as coal-fired power is, it is being forced out of the system by sources of power that are cheaper and more dispatchable. We can’t turn back.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Forget about the trade spat – coal is passé in much of China, and that’s a bigger problem for Australia



Greg Baker/AP

Hao Tan, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, UNSW; John Mathews, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Macquarie University

Australian coal exports to China plummeted last year. While this is due in part to recent trade tensions between Australia and China, our research suggests coal plant closures are a bigger threat to Australia’s export coal in the long term.

China unofficially banned Australian coal in mid-2020. Some 70 ships carrying Australian coal have reportedly been unable to unload in China since October.

This is obviously bad news for Australia’s coal exporters. But even if the ban is lifted, there’s no guarantee China will start buying Australian coal again – at least not in huge volumes.

China is changing. It’s announced a firm date to reach net-zero emissions, and governments in eastern provinces don’t want polluting coal plants taking up prime real estate. It’s time Australia faced reality, and reconsidered its coal export future.

Coal ship unloads at Chinese port
China’s coal import quotas are hurting Australian exporters.
Wang Kai/AP

First, the coal ban

In May last year, China’s government effectively banned the import of Australian coal, by applying stringent import quotas. As of last month coal exports to China from Newcastle, Australia’s busiest coal exporting port, had ceased.

In 2019, Australia exported A$13.7 billion worth of coal to China. This comprised A$9.7 billion in metallurgical coal for steel making and A$4 billion in thermal coal for electricity generation.

The latest official Australian data shows these export levels fell dramatically between November 2019 and November 2020. Comparing the two months, metallurgical and thermal coal exports to China were down 85% and 83% respectively.




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Several Chinese provinces experienced power blackouts in late 2020. China’s state-backed media said the shortages were unrelated to the ban on Australian coal. Instead, they blamed cold weather and the recovery in industrial activity after the pandemic.

We dispute this claim. While Australian coal accounts for only about 2% of coal consumption in China, it helps maintain reliable supply for many power stations in China’s southeast coastal provinces.

Coal mining in China mostly occurs in the western provinces. Southeast coastal provinces are largely economically advanced and no longer produce coal. Instead, power stations in those provinces import coal from overseas.

This coal is cheaper than domestic coal, and often easier to access; transport bottlenecks in China often hinder the movement of domestic coal.

Coal mine at Gunnedah in NSW
Australian thermal coal helps supplement China’s domestic supply.
Rob Griffith/AP

Beyond the trade tensions

Experience suggests trade tensions between Australia and China will eventually ease. But in the long run, there is a more fundamental threat to Australian coal exports to China.

Data from monitoring group Global Coal Tracker shows between 2015 and 2019, China closed 291 coal-fired power generation units in power plants of 30 megawatts (MW) or larger, totalling 37 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. For context, Australia decommissioned 5.5 GW of coal-fired power generation units between 2010 and 2017, and currently has 21 GW of coal-fired power stations.

The closures were driven by factors such as climate change and air pollution concern, excess coal power capacity, and China’s move away from some energy-intensive industries.

Our recently published paper revealed other distinctive features of the coal power station closures.




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The Paris Agreement 5 years on: big coal exporters like Australia face a reckoning


First, China’s regions are reducing coal power capacity at different rates and scales. In the nation’s eastern provinces, the closures are substantial. But elsewhere, and particularly in the western provinces, new coal plants are being built.

In fact, China’s coal power capacity increased by about 18% between 2015 and 2019. It currently has more than 1,000 GW of coal generation capacity – the largest in the world.

Second, we found retired coal power stations in China had much shorter lives than the international average. Guangdong, an economically developed region of comparable economic size to Canada, illustrates the point. According to our calculation, the stations in that region had a median age of 15 years at closure. In contrast, coal plants that closed in Australia between 2010 and 2017 had a median age of 43 years.

coal plant in China
Coal plant closures have been most marked in China’s east.
AP

This suggests coal power stations in China are usually retired not because they’ve reached the end of their productive lives, but rather to achieve a particular purpose.

Third, our study showed decisions to decommission coal power stations in China were largely driven by government, especially local governments. This is in contrast to Australia, where the decision to close a plant is usually made by the company that owns it. And this decomissioning in China is usually driven by a development logic.

Coal plant closures there have been faster and bigger than elsewhere in the country, as governments replace energy- and pollution-intensive industries with advanced manufacturing and services.

And as these regions become richer, the value of land occupied by coal power plants and transmission facilities grows. This gives governments a strong incentive to close the plants and redevelop the sites.

In coming years, southeast China will increasingly shift to renewable-based electricity and electric power transmitted from western provinces.

Man covers mouth
Air pollution concerns are helping drive China’s move away from coal-burning for power.
Ng Han Guan/AP

Securing our energy future

Coal power stations in China’s eastern coastal regions will continue to close in coming years, and power generation capacity will be redistributed to western provinces. For reasons outlined above, that means power generation in China will increasingly rely on domestic coal rather than that from Australia.

China’s coal exit is in part due to its strategy to peak its carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2060. Australia must realistically appraise its coal export prospects in light of the long-term threat posed by shifts in China and other East Asian nations.

The Morrison government, and industry, should re-double efforts to rapidly expand renewable energy in Australia. Then we can leave coal behind, and emerge as a renewable energy superpower.




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The Conversation


Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; John Mathews, Professor Emeritus, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Discipline of Politics & International Relations, Macquarie School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Paris Agreement 5 years on: big coal exporters like Australia face a reckoning



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Jeremy Moss, UNSW

On Saturday, more than 70 global leaders came together at the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit, marking the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was denied a speaking slot, in recognition of Australia’s failure to set meaningful climate commitments. Meanwhile, the European Union and the UK committed to reduce domestic emissions by 55% and 68% respectively by 2030.

As welcome as these new commitments are, the Paris Agreement desperately needs to be updated. Since it was passed, the production and supply of fossil fuels for export has continued unabated. And the big exporters — such as Norway, Canada, the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and of course Australia — take no responsibility for the emissions created when those fossil fuels are burned overseas.

It’s time this changed. Australia is the world’s biggest coal exporter. And in 2019, emissions from fossil fuels exported by this nation, as well as the US, Norway and Canada, accounted for more than 10% of total world emissions, according to calculations from a research project on Australia’s carbon budget at the University of NSW, which I run. Exporting nations are not legally responsible for these offshore emissions, but their actions are clearly at odds with the climate emergency.

Business as usual

A 2019 UN report notes governments are planning to extract 50% more fossil fuels than is consistent with meeting a 2℃ target and an alarming 120% more than a 1.5℃ target, by 2030. Coal is the main contributor to this supply overshoot.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged all leaders to declare a climate emergency.

But rather than reducing their production of fossil fuels, many countries are doubling down and actually increasing supply. For example, in Australia, government figures show the greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s exported fossil fuels increased by 4.4% between 2018 to 2019.

Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter and approved three new fossil fuel projects in recent months: the Vickery coal mine extension, Olive Downs and the Narrabri Gas Project

This is a worldwide trend. Let’s take Norway as another example. Norway gets the bulk of its electricity from hydropower and has partially divested its Government Pension Fund from some fossil fuels. Yet it’s also one of the largest exporters of greenhouse gases through its gas exports, behind Qatar and Russia.




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The situation is mirrored in the corporate world. Many large fossil fuel companies are trumpeting their emissions reductions targets while continuing to push for new fossil fuel mining projects. BHP, one of the world’s biggest miners, stated it is reducing its emissions, yet in October the company increased its stake in an oil field in the Gulf of Mexico.

Responsibility doesn’t stop at the border

What underpins this situation is an outdated “territorial” model of responsibility for climate harms. Governments and companies seem to think responsibility stops at the border, not with the overall livability of the global climate. Once the coal, oil and gas products are loaded onto ships, they are no longer our problem.

Unfortunately, the accounting rules of the United Nations, under the Paris Agreement, currently allow exporters to pass on responsibility for fossil fuel emissions.

We must move from this territorial model of responsibility to one that considers the whole chain of responsibility for climate harms.

So what should Australia, Canada, the US, Norway and other exporting countries do to address the over-supply of fossil fuels?

First, they need to acknowledge their responsibility, at least in part, for the emissions and associated harms caused by their exports. Allowing compensation and funding for mitigation to track the role played in the causal chain better attributes responsibility and places mitigation burdens back on the exporting countries.




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Future climate negotiations, such as in Glasgow in 2021 (COP26), need to adjust the scope of their targets to include robust reductions in the supply of fossil fuels in the next round of agreements.

Instead of just focusing on reducing demand, the process needs to function as a kind of “reverse OPEC” (the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), where exporting countries are given ambitious phase-out targets for their fossil fuel exports.

Drastic emissions cuts needed

The 2020 Production Gap report notes global fossil fuel production will have to decrease by 6% a year between 2020-30 to meet a 1.5℃ target.

For Australia, this must mean we include the reduction in “exported emissions” as part of any net-zero target. Australia’s exported emissions are double our domestic emissions – a situation that cannot continue.

Top of the list of what’s needed, is the phasing out of generous subsidies for fossil fuel producers. The billions of dollars currently spent annually in Australia on subsidising and encouraging fossil fuel exports are simply not compatible with the aims and spirit of the Paris Agreement.




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Phasing out the supply of fossil fuels also needs to occur in a way that doesn’t just pay the current big suppliers to stop. Governments implementing a transition ought to think very carefully about how to fairly deploy scarce resources to ensure a just transition.

Last but not least, governments need to accept that the strong influence fossil fuel corporations wield over the political process is hindering global efforts to address climate change. The donations , rotation of industry staff to government positions and influence of fossil fuel lobby groups cannot lead to good decisions for the climate.

Placing a ban on such influence, particularly at future climate negotiations, would go a long way towards addressing the undue influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Until the fossil fuel export industry is subject to demanding targets, and made to accept responsibility for the emissions associated with their products, Earth will continue on its highly dangerous global warming trajectory.The Conversation

Jeremy Moss, Professor of Political Philosophy, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Japan is closing its old, dirty power plants – and that’s bad news for Australia’s coal exports



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Llewelyn Hughes, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Last month, the Japanese government announced a plan to retire its fleet of old, inefficient coal-fired generation by 2030. And what happens to coal power in Japan matters a lot to Australia.

Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars’ worth of thermal coal to Japan in 2019 – about 12% of our total thermal coal exports.

In the short term, several new coal plants are being built in Japan to replace scrapped capacity. But there are signs investors are not flocking to invest in expensive new Japanese coal technology.

And in the long run, the investment environment for new coal technology is worsening. If Japan’s commitment to coal weakens, that will mean less demand for Australia’s exports.

Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka.
Coal on a ship at the Japanese port of Nakhodka. Japan is phasing out its old coal infrastructure.
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Japan’s changing coal fleet

Almost all Japan’s nuclear power stations remain shuttered ten years after the Fukushima disaster. The Japanese government has positioned coal as a long-term hedge against the possibility the nuclear power restarts will not proceed as hoped.

However, Japan has also been criticised for its lack of ambition on plans to address climate change under the Paris Agreement.

Last month, the government signalled it will decommission about 100 inefficient coal-fired power units. It aims to reduce coal’s share of the power mix to 26% by 2030 – down from 32% in the 2018 financial year.




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The big questions are: what are the prospects for Japan’s coal fleet, and what does this mean for Australia?

The Japanese government is supporting investment in newer plants, including some that use a high-pressure “gasifier” to turn coal into gas. But these types of plants are expensive to build. With a typical coal plant expected to operate for about 40 years, companies are wary of making huge outlays with relatively limited time to recoup the investment.

Reflecting this, last year Osaka Gas withdrew plans to build a 1.2 gigawatt (GW) coal plant in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Tokyo Gas, Kyushu Electric and Idemitsu also abandoned plans to build a 2GW coal plant in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo. In total, 30% of planned investment in coal power has been scrapped since 2016.

Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria.
Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with a Japanese dignitary at Loy Yang A power station in Victoria. Japan’s phase-out of old coal plants raises questions over its demand for Australian coal in the long term.
Julian Smith/AAP

Renewables are also becoming increasingly important. Japan has big plans for offshore wind power, and renewable electricity is falling in price.

In Europe and elsewhere, such changing economics have helped drive falls in the number of hours that coal plants operate. Globally, final investment decisions for new coal plants fell from more than 100GW in 2010 to just over 20GW in 2018. Although it might take a little longer in Japan, there is no reason to expect things to be different there.

Crucially, these dynamics are underpinned by shifts in Japan’s electricity market to encourage more competition. Over time, that should mean companies find it increasingly difficult to pass the costs of expensive investments in coal technologies to final customers.




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Machinery working in a coal pile
Australia shipped more than A$9 billion dollars of thermal coal to Japan in 2019.
Dave Hunt/AAP

Dim prospects for coal

Mining company Glencore this month announced a plan to cut production from Australian coal mines, citing weak demand due to COVID-19.

The world will recover from the pandemic. But in the longer term, coal in Japan faces even stiffer headwinds – not least market competition and increasing renewables from offshore wind and other technologies.

This creates real questions about the appetite of Japanese companies to wage the increasingly risky bet that coal-fired power represents. Changes in Japan’s power market show the need for Australia to begin transiting to an economy less reliant on carbon-intensive exports.




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The Conversation


Llewelyn Hughes, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If we could design JobKeeper within weeks, we can exit coal by 2030. Here’s how to do it



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John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

As we emerge from the lockdown phase of the pandemic, there are many lessons to learn. One is that when given credible warning of an existential threat, it is better to act early and risk doing too much than to delay acting and face a much bigger and harder to solve problem when the warnings turn out to be correct.

While the pandemic will pass, one way or another, the problem of global heating, and its many consequences, is going to be with us for the rest of our lives, and those of our children and grandchildren.

Already the world has had decades of warnings, and has done little to heed them.

To hold the increase in global temperatures to 2⁰C, the world needs to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 25% over the next decades, and cut them to zero by 2050.




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Current commitments are inadequate to achieve this.

In Australia’s case, the unjustified use of “carryover credits” means the government is actually proposing an increase in emissions over the next decade, with even larger increases likely in the future.

Quite simply, there is no way of prevent catastrophic climate change unless we stop burning coal to generate electricity, and do it sooner rather than later.

We need to switch 20-25,000 jobs

As of 2020, coal-fired electricity generation is the only major use of carbon-based fuels for which we have a well-developed and affordable alternatives.

For most other uses of carbon-based fuels, alternatives rely on using electricity, as in the case of electric vehicles and “green” hydrogen.

These alternatives are helpful only if the electricity that powers them is coal-free.




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But in Australia, any move to break with thermal coal runs up against the claim that jobs in coal mining and coal-fired power are essential for workers and for communities.

It is a claim I examine in a new report published by the Australia Institute entitled Getting off coal: Economic and social policies to manage the phase-out of thermal coal in Australia.

It finds that a transition from thermal coal mining could be managed fairly, without significant job losses and while protecting coal-dependent regions.

25,000 is not a big number

Contrary to widespread perceptions, thermal coal mining is not a major employer, and most workers in the industry are not miners in the ordinary understanding of the term.

According to the latest Labour Force Survey, in February 2020 coal mining employed about 43 300 people, down from a peak of 60 000 in 2012.

Since Australia’s coal output is roughly evenly divided between coking and thermal coal, it seems likely that about 20-25,000 are employed producing the thermal coal that is used for heating and electricity generation.

This compares with a Bureau of Statistics estimate of about 26,850 in renewable energy. A successful transition to a decarbonised electricity sector would require at least a doubling of the current growth rate of renewables, implying more than 26 000 new jobs.

Many of the jobs are transferable

Many of the people employed in coal mining in February 2020 were not miners in the ordinary sense of the term. About 14% worked in white collar (managerial, professional and clerical) jobs.

A large portion of the remainder, such as carpenters, truck drivers and labourers, worked in trades not tied to mining.

The exception is the category known as Drillers, Miners and Shot Firers, which accounts for about 20% of total mining employment. If the same proportion applies in coal mining, there would be around 5,000 specialist drillers, miners and shot firers in producing thermal coal.

A transition program for these workers could be funded for less than the government’s recently announced HomeBuilder.

The wages high, but the conditions are bad

Advocates of coal mining point out that coal mining generally pays higher wages than other industries, including the renewable energy industry. This partly reflects high levels of unionisation, which could be encouraged more broadly.

More significant is probably its reliance on socially destructive fly-in, fly-out working arrangements, which necessitate high wages to offset family separations.

An indication that the wages earned by workers in the mining industry represent
compensation for poor conditions can be derived from evidence on workforce turnover.

The mining industry is characterised by annual turnover of 20% to 30%, substantially higher than that for the labour market as a whole.

And much of the employment isn’t local

Largely because of fly-in, fly-out, the number of communities that depend on coal as the primary source of their local employment is small.

Moreover, in many cases, these communities, such as those of the Bowen Basin, are well endowed with solar and wind resources.

With appropriate planning (instead of the current chaos in electricity policy) these communities could be given priority in the development of utility-scale solar and wind generation, along with the necessary transmission links.

The result might be be a net gain in local employment.




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On Monday the Minerals Council of Australia announced a Climate Action Plan, proclaiming the need for action to reduce the risks of human-induced climate change and expressing support for “world-wide decarbonisation”.

What it did not do was suggest that the 25,000 or so Australians who work in coal mining could be switched to other industries.

That has been the conventional wisdom for some time – that a switch of 25,000 jobs from one industry to another would be too much for Australia to handle.

Yet when the coronavirus hit, we shut down industries employing three million Australians overnight, and dealt with the economic consequences impressively.

We have demonstrated our capacity to do the same for the much more dangerous, if less immediate, risk of catastrophic climate change.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s devotion to coal has come at a huge cost. We need the government to change course, urgently



AAP/Lukas Coch

Judith Brett, La Trobe University

Because we are rich in coal and gas, Australia has been plagued with two decades of wars over climate policy. The wars have claimed three prime ministers: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull. They have also, in the words of journalist Alan Kohler,

ruined Australia’s ability to conduct any kind of sensible discussion about economic policy and to achieve consensus on anything.

The response to the pandemic shows that consensus and effective, evidence-based policy are not impossible for Australia’s politicians. Faced with a crisis of life and death, they can put aside ideology and stare down vested interests.

The optimists among us hope they can do this with the life and death crises humanity is facing as the planet heats, and that the terrible fires last summer will have convinced our leaders climate change is real, and effective action urgent. So far, the calls for urgent action are louder from business than from political leaders. Innes Willox, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, has linked restoring growth after the pandemic to the achievement of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The federal government, by contrast, is championing gas as a “transition fuel” between coal and renewables. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handpicked chair of the National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission, Nev Power, has strong links to the gas industry.

Calling gas a “transition fuel” at least admits the need for a transition. But gas also contributes to the planet’s heating, and the federal government has no plausible plan to meet Australia’s Paris target, nor to ramp it up, which must be done for a safe future.




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The grip that coal and gas has on our political elites goes back to the 1960s, when minerals replaced wool as the mainstay of our commodity exports. Iron ore and coal led the way.

About the same time, mining’s social licence was being challenged by Indigenous Australians, who objected to mining on their traditional lands, and by environmentalists concerned about mining’s destructive impact on natural habitats. The miners’ response was a concerted public relations campaign to align their interests with the national interest by convincing Australians their prosperity depended on mining and should not be curtailed.

In this, the miners have been spectacularly successful. First, in the 1980s, they stymied the implementation of the Hawke Labor government’s plan for uniform land rights legislation, which would include protection of sacred sites, the right to royalties and a veto over mining on Indigenous land.

In Australia, unlike other common law countries, the Crown owns the minerals, so the veto would have given Indigenous owners more rights than freehold owners. Miners launched a furious public campaign centred on the argument that Indigenous Australians should not have special rights.

A decade later, after the High Court determined in the Mabo and Wik judgements that forms of native title had survived European settlement, the miners fought again to make sure the resulting legislation did not include any veto over mining; and it didn’t.

Second, they have delayed effective government action on climate change. At the end of the century, as pressure mounted for a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels, Australia’s coal producers organised to prevent the federal government from signing international agreements to reduce carbon emissions. Their core argument was that mining underpinned Australia’s wealth, but they also spread scepticism about climate change amongst conservative elites, turning it into an identity marker for the Australian right.

Under John Howard, fossil fuel advocates gained extraordinary access to government decision-making on climate and energy policy. This access was not given to environmental non-government organisations (NGOs) or climate scientists. So much for balance.

The power of the fossil fuel lobby was weaker after Howard lost the 2007 election. Later, it was unable to prevent the Gillard government from implementing a price on carbon and establishing a series of agencies to advance action on climate change.

But with Tony Abbott as prime minister, the industry’s power was back. Scepticism about climate science spread to science and expertise generally, undermining the federal government’s commitment to innovation and research. The fossil fuel lobby is not solely to blame for the Coalition’s philistinism under Abbott, but it bears some responsibility for its self-interested spreading of climate scepticism.




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The mining lobby’s third success has been to capture the National Party and turn it into the party of coal and coal seam gas, even when extracting these destroys the good agricultural land on which our food security depends. This is an astonishing achievement.

In March 2019, on Network 10’s The Project, Waleed Aly asked Nationals leader Michael McCormack

Could you name a single, big policy area where the Nats have sided with the interests of farmers over the interests of miners when they come into conflict?

Off the top of his head, McCormack could not name one. Mining has so successfully aligned itself with perceptions of the national interest that the National Party now champions the jobs of miners more energetically than the livelihoods of the farmers it once regarded as the heart of the nation.

The biggest lesson from the pandemic is that governments are our risk managers of last resort. Ours, both state and federal, have been prepared to inflict massive economic pain on businesses and individuals to protect our health, and we are grateful.

As we face the much larger but more slow-moving crisis of the heating planet, governments must stare down the fossil fuel industry and its supporters, for all our sakes, even if this inflicts on them some economic pain.

If they can do it for the pandemic, they can do it for climate change.

Judith Brett’s Quarterly Essay, The Coal Curse, is out today.The Conversation

Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.